One Local, One Raider in the Belmont Oaks, Derby

By J. Keeler Johnson ("Keelerman") Twitter: @J_Keelerman

Raise your hand if you're excited for the Saturday card at Belmont Park!

Two Grade 1 events for three-year-olds are on the agenda: the Belmont Oaks (G1) and the Belmont Derby (G1). Both races have drawn exciting fields, so let's dive in and take a closer look:

Belmont Oaks (G1)

Since 2014, when the Belmont Oaks adopted its current format, international challengers have been a common presence in the 1 1/4-mile turf test. But victory has generally proven elusive for the raiders, with American fillies claiming top honors in five out of six years from 2014-2019. Last year's winner, Magic Attitude, can technically be claimed by both territories; the Belmont Oaks was her U.S. debut, but she'd been training in the U.S. under the care of Arnaud Delacour.

Regardless, the key takeaway is obvious: the home team is formidable in the Belmont Oaks. So even though the 2021 edition is packed with talented shippers, including the Group 1-placed duo of #2 Cirona (12-1) and #5 Santa Barbara (1-1), I have to side with local runner #7 Plum Ali (7-2) to spring a mild upset.

Plum Ali was a star during her juvenile season, winning her first three starts on firm turf by a minimum of two lengths. Her biggest score came in the 1 1/16-mile Miss Grillo S. (G2) at Belmont Park, a race previously won by Belmont Oaks champions Lady Eli (2015) and New Money Honey (2017).

Unfortunately, Plum Ali hasn't caught a firm course since. Or even much racing luck, for that matter. Her last three runs—all defeats—have come over "good" footing, which arguably dulled her effectiveness just a little when finishing fifth in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile Fillies Turf (G1) to wrap up 2021.

But Plum Ali's losses this season can be chalked up to unfavorable pace scenarios. In the one-mile Appalachian S. (G2) at Keeneland, she settled in fourth place behind pedestrian splits of :24.82, :49.87, and 1:14.29 set by front-running winner Jouster. When the latter sprinted the final quarter mile in a blazing :22.54, Plum Ali had no realistic chance to catch up. But to her credit, she dashed her own final quarter in :22.12 to gain 3 1/2 lengths and finish third, just two lengths away from victory and half a length behind next-out Edgewood S. (G2) winner Gift List.

Plum Ali managed to turn the tables on both Jouster and Gift List in the 1 1/8-mile Wonder Again S. (G3) at Belmont Park last month, the local prep for the Belmont Oaks. But again, the race shape stymied Plum Ali's bid for victory. According to Trakus, the race unfolded with modest splits of :24.93, :50.41, and 1:14.82, giving an insurmountable advantage to the pace-tracking winner #1 Con Lima (5-1). But Plum Ali was absolutely gobbling up ground down the lane, rocketing her final three furlongs in :34.03 to gain 5 1/2 lengths, charge from dead last, and finish second by half a length.

Perhaps Plum Ali will finally enjoy a favorable pace setup in the Belmont Oaks. Or perhaps she'll relish stretching out over 1 1/4 miles and rally to victory regardless of pace. Either way, the daughter of First Samurai looms as a serious win threat under hot jockey Joel Rosario, who has won more graded stakes this year (25) than any other jockey.

Belmont Derby (G1)

Homegrown contenders have been just as successful in the Belmont Derby as the Belmont Oaks, with local runners claiming victory on six of seven occasions since 2014. The lone international winner was Deauville (2016), an Aidan O'Brien trainee who claimed top honors while exiting a start in England's Epsom Derby (G1).

Interestingly, this description also matches #2 Balshoi Ballet (7-5), the heavy favorite to win the 2021 Belmont Derby. And while the overall stats indicate favoring American runners is a wise approach, I believe Bolshoi Ballet has the raw talent to overcame the odds and follow Deauville's path to the winner's circle.

Bolshoi Ballet was as impressive as could be in his first two starts of the season. The son of superstar sire Galileo rattled off back-to-back victories in the P. W. McGrath Memorial Ballysax S. (G3) and Derrinstown Stud Derby Trial S. (G3), both running 1 1/4 miles over good ground at Leopardstown. In the latter race, Bolshoi Ballet romped by six lengths, with next-out Nijinsky S. winner Fernando Vichi finishing third.

These efforts stamped Bolshoi Ballet as a heavy favorite to win the Epsom Derby, but things didn't go according to plan. Racing over good-to-soft ground may have hindered Bolshoi Ballet's chances, and he was further compromised when suffering a cut on his right hind leg during the running. In the end, Bolshoi Ballet weakened from a tracking position to finish a distant seventh.

But there's no reason to think Bolshoi Ballet can't rebound in the Belmont Derby. Cutting back to 1 1/4 miles, and returning to a firmer surface, should help his chances. He retains the services of internationally acclaimed jockey Ryan Moore and should have enough tactical speed to work out a fair trip from post two. With these factors in Bolshoi Ballet's favor, I'll count on the favorite to deliver victory at a short price.

Now it's your turn! Who do you like in the Belmont Oaks and Belmont Derby?


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J. Keeler Johnson (also known as "Keelerman") is a writer, videographer, voice actor, handicapper, and all-around horse racing enthusiast. A great fan of racing history, he considers Dr. Fager to be the greatest racehorse ever produced in America, but counts Zenyatta as his all-time favorite. He is the founder of the horse racing website

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